Japan may not be the first country that springs to mind when you think of the best traditional mechanical watches, but the Grand Seiko series, relaunched in 1998, has found a loyal following in Asia.
The art of watchmaking has long been set against a panoramic backdrop of snow-capped mountains, green forests and dust-free air. But you’d expect to find such a setting in Switzerland, not Japan. Morioka Seiko factory – in the mountainous north of the country’s central island, Honshu – provides a serene base for the creation of one of the world’s most luxurious mechanical wristwatches: the Grand Seiko. Found on the wrists of discerning people across the globe, Grand Seiko has acquired cult status for its classic design, cutting-edge technology and painstaking craftsmanship.
From its five-facet-diamond-cut hands to its trademark lion logo engraved on the back of the case, every aspect of the Grand Seiko is meticulously handcrafted at the Morioka factory, the only site in Japan where mechanical watches are built from start to finish. “The Grand Seiko spirit is about producing a watch of substance,” says Hideji Machida from the watch division of Seiko Instruments Inc. “The end result combines accuracy, simplicity, practicality and longevity. That’s why people want to own one.”
The first Grand Seiko was unveiled in 1960 and its launch marked the beginning of a decade of success for the family-run Seiko business. As well as being appointed official timekeepers at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, the company became, in 1969, the first in the world to create a quartz watch. While the quartz revolution dominated the industry for several decades, Seiko decided, in 1998, to discretely revive its mechanical watchmaking legacy with the Mechanical 9S Series Grand Seiko (production had ceased in the early 1970s).
“The basic concept of the Grand Seiko remains unchanged,” says Kazuya Kawahara, PR manager for Seiko. “It is very practical, very accurate and has a very smooth finish. Then and now, it appeals to quality-conscious men, probably in their late twenties to their sixties.”
Quietly humming with industry, the Morioka Seiko factory is surrounded by dense forests. Within its minimalist white and glass walls, Grand Seiko research, design, creation, assembly, inspection and casing takes place. There are 470 employees, but machines often appear to outweigh human presence as row after tidy row of robotic production lines churn out microscopically perfect components. But the Grand Seiko hub lies within the refined confines of the Shizukuishi Watch Studio. Behind glass walls, 19 white-uniformed technicians toil slowly and silently with personalised tools and microscopes, seated at traditional lacquered Iwayado Tansu desks.
Here, around 6,000 Grand Seikos are completed every year. From assembling delicate components and creating the domed sapphire-crystal cover to diamond-cutting the hour and minute hands and engraving the trademark lion logo, the craftsmen are devoted to an array of tasks. While the average watch takes up to five months to create, they typically spend 40 days with the craftsmen, 17 of which are dedicated to running tests – in six positions and in three temperatures (8, 23 and 38C).
Research leads to frequent innovations, the most recent of which is a main spring 10cm longer than average, enabling the Grand Seiko 9S67 – released last year – to last for 72 hours without winding. Mamoru Sakurada, a technician with 42 years of experience and a prestigious Yellow Ribbon award from Japan’s Emperor under his belt, says: “It is very difficult making highly accurate watches. What I most enjoy is when something finally works after lots of tiny adjustments. Patience and being a perfectionist certainly help.”
The craftsmanship is reflected in the price tag. Sold mostly in Asia, the watches range from ¥350,000 to ¥1.2m (about €2,100 to €7,300), although many are custom-made, with the most expensive costing ¥3m (about €18,200).
Pausing from testing a balance spring, Akira Ohira, who has spent 37 years as a watch craftsman, says: “I might spend a day working on as few as five watches, but the end result is worth it. A Grand Seiko means you have chosen something that is not mass produced, it’s much more personal.”